Another key mental process for dealing with information is categorization. This process involves sorting other people (and ourselves) into different categories, just as postal workers sort mail into pigeonholes. Each hole might be labeled with a postal code. The postal worker does not read the name or address on the letter but glances only at the postal code in order to put the letter in the proper bin. In order to be similarly efficient, we
categorize people based on limited information. Often we categorize others on the basis of appearance. Speech—
language, accent, vocabulary, content—is another important source of cues. We tend to make in-group and out-group categorizations (see Chapter 2); that is, we classify people according to whether they seem to belong, or not belong, to groups of which we ourselves are members.
Other key indicators of categories into which we might sort people are
• race and gender
• the extent to which a person stands out as different from others (for example, Europeans are obvious in rural Japan)
• being “typical” of a particular group
• a history of conflict with a group, leading to categorization as “not in our group”
Once we form a category, we perceive its members to be similar to each other, yet we continue to see differences among members of our own group. For example, an Asian may be aware of a broad category of “European,” whereas a European will see many different categories within “European,” for example, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Mediterranean, Scandinavian, and Slav, and also different national and regional categories.
Putting people into categories influences our attitudes about and expectations of them.5 We tend to perceive everyone in the group as having similar characteristics and behaviors. We may expect Americans to be noisy, Irish gregarious, and Japanese polite. These stereotypes need not be negative but often are, leading to prejudice and/or hostility. Perhaps the most obnoxious prejudice against others who are “not like me” is racism, partly because racial categorization is so easy.6 Stereotypes of other nationalities may be intense, particularly when the group in question is prominent in one’s experience. Much political conflict—for instance, Arab–Israeli, Indian– Pakistani, Shia–Sunni, Irish Catholic–Irish Protestant—creates and is supported by intense negative stereotypes of out-groups.
Stereotypes may be based on limited information or on the views of influential others. People who have never met anyone from another culture can hold intense stereotypes of that culture. Furthermore, stereotypes
perpetuate themselves, because selective perception focuses attention on information that confirms our stereotypes and away from information that disconfirms them.
In attribution we move beyond simply observing and interpreting others to making inferences about why they behave as they do. Particularly important is the distinction between internal attributions, in which behavior is attributed to factors associated with the person (for example, “she punished her son because she is an aggressive person”), and external attributions, in which we believe behavior is caused by external circumstance (“she punished her son because he misbehaved”).
When categorization and stereotypic expectations are combined with attribution, we get some interesting effects. For example, “she punished her son because she is Serbian, and Serbians are cruel and aggressive.”
A common error is to attribute the behavior of members of an out-group to the same causes that would likely be true if members of our own in- group behaved the same way, as shown in the following case.
THE BOYFRIEND WHO WASN’T Naoko, a female Japanese exchange student at a college in South Carolina, writes excitedly to her Osaka girlfriend: “Here in America, I have a new boyfriend! His name is Clive. He is good looking, with curly hair. I was taken to visit his parents’ house, and he was very nice to me, looking after my every need. I think we will soon have a date.”
Clive, meantime, confides to his friends: “Naoko seems to have gotten things all mixed up. I have a girlfriend already, and I don’t want two. Sure, I was nice to her when she visited, but that was just normal politeness.”
Clive comes from America’s traditional Deep South, where social graces and effusive good manners have long been the norm. Clive was only acting as he had been brought up always to act in social situations. Unfortunately, the same type of behavior practiced in Naoko’s culture would have been evidence of a romantic interest.7
In this case, cultural cruise control affected both parties. Clive continued to act automatically in the script of his own culture, noticing only too late the impression his behavior was making on his companion. Naoko continued to observe automatically through the lens of her own
culture and made no allowances for the difference in background. Without either one meaning to, the two colluded to create a major misunderstanding. What was needed was for them to switch off their cultural cruise control and adopt a state of mindfulness in which they both become aware of the cultural significance of their own and the other’s behavior.
Switching off Cultural Cruise Control A pilot whose airplane is set on cruise control—automatic pilot—can rely on the expert programming built into the automatic system to keep the plane flying straight and level on the correct course, as long as conditions stay normal. But occasionally a change in conditions—a sudden weather hazard, a mechanical failure—will trigger warning signs. The pilot will snap out of mindlessness, switch off the automatic pilot, and devote full attention and skill to the problem.
A person from the United States who tries to drive a car in Japan or Britain, where the traffic travels on the left side of the road rather than the right and the driving controls are on the right side of the car not the left, will have to abandon some of the built-in rules and habits of driving in the United States. In novel cross-cultural situations, it is similarly imperative that we switch off our cultural cruise control. However, doing so is just the first step. Suspending cultural mindlessness directs your attention to cultural issues. It does not follow that you are attending to them in a productive way. To get maximum benefit requires a new set of active practices, which we call mindfulness.
Mindfulness Mindfulness is such a common idea that many people do not appreciate how powerful it can be. It is actively paying attention to the present situation and its context. It means discarding our rigid mental programming. It does not mean abandoning who we are but rather using attention to become aware of differences and to think differently. It involves recognizing that despite cultural differences there will be many similarities between us and people from other groups, and that cultural differences do not matter all the time.
In cross-cultural interactions, mindfulness means simultaneously paying attention to the external situation, monitoring our own thoughts and feelings, and regulating the knowledge and skills we use.
Mindful attention involves using all of the senses (for example, hearing the words that the other person speaks but also noting the expression on his or her face), viewing the situation with an open mind, and attending to the context to help interpretation.
Mindful monitoring means being aware of our own assumptions, ideas, and emotions, as well as noticing cues from the other people and tuning in to their assumptions, words, and behavior. It also means putting ourselves in other people’s shoes as a means of understanding the situation and their feelings toward it, from the perspective of their cultural background rather than ours.
Mindful regulation means creating new mental maps of other people’s personalities and cultural backgrounds to assist in responding appropriately to them, seeking out fresh information to confirm or disconfirm the mental maps, choosing not to respond automatically, and editing responses to be consistent with our goals.
Consider these examples:
Mindlessness—“After I finished the job, she started criticizing me. She is always criticizing me. She is Asian and doesn’t understand how we do things here. So I stopped listening to her. She went on and on, and eventually I just walked out.” Mindfulness—“After I finished the job, she started criticizing the way I had done it. I listened to what she had to say; maybe she would have some good points to make. I paid attention to the tone of her voice and the way she looked: she didn’t really seem angry, just concerned. I was aware that I hadn’t done that sort of work before, that she was more experienced. I knew she would have to explain the problem to her boss, and I wondered how that would feel for her. She is Asian, and I knew she would not want to lose face. But she is so knowledgeable; I knew I could learn from her. I also knew she didn’t like to be interrupted, so I waited patiently till she was finished. Then I apologized for my mistakes, thanked her for her feedback, and asked if she could monitor me while I did the job again.”
Mindfulness is a mediating step that helps us to use knowledge to
develop skillful practice. It gives us readiness to interact with people who are different. It gives us the background to communicate comfortably and accurately in ways that honor the backgrounds and identities of both parties. And it focuses our minds on the cross-cultural aspects of the situation.
Initially being mindful takes considerable effort. But over time being mindful can become a natural and normal way of being. We can’t be mindful all the time, and we don’t have to be. But mindfulness helps us to be in control and leads to greater freedom of thought and action.
Cross-Cultural Skills Knowledge and mindfulness are key elements in cultural intelligence, but in themselves they are not enough. In practice, cultural intelligence is seen in and judged by skilled behavior. Cultural intelligence is not just a mind game—you have to be able to perform.
For example, in the case with which we started this chapter, it will be insufficient for Safiyah to learn Australian dress norms and pay more mindful attention to how things are normally done in her new country. She also needs to moderate her behavior such that any cultural discomfort she may feel is not on public display and so that she is able to interact suitably and develop good relationships. Australians, such as the shoeless young man she met, might likewise benefit from appreciating the expectations of those who are culturally different and taking those into account in deciding how to dress and how to act.
The third and last element of cultural intelligence is cross-cultural skills. The concept of skill can be applied to social behavior. In organizations, for example, the most common problems are not technical or administrative deficiencies but communication failures, misunderstandings in negotiations, personality conflicts, poor leadership style, and bad teamwork—in other words, people interacting inadequately with each other.
Nowadays, many organizations regard social and interpersonal skills as key qualifications for employees. More than 70 percent of managers’ time, in most cultures, is typically spent in interaction with superiors, subordinates, peers, clients, and others, in face-to-face conversations, meetings, telephone calls, and informal social settings.8 Skilled interpersonal performance is vital, and many companies offer their employees skills training.
Most of us admire the social performance of colleagues and others who
are outstanding in the art of interpersonal communication and relationship building. Each of us also has his or her own set of skilled social behaviors, which are closely related to the expectations and scripts of our own culture. Some of the social skills we develop in our own cultures may contain elements—such as willingness to initiate a conversation, interest in other people, and listening skills—that may assist us in other cultural settings. However, operating in other cultures also creates a new frontier for our social interactions, often requiring the development of new social performance.
Acquiring the skills of cultural intelligence does not mean becoming more skilled in a particular set of behaviors but rather building general skills that extend the range, or repertoire, of skilled behaviors, and knowing when to use each one. Cultural difference extends the range of possibilities that we may face.9 Skilled routines we have mastered effectively in one culture may be counterproductive in another, to the extent that we have to “unlearn” them in the new situation. Here is a case in point.
FRENCH DRESSING Philippe LeBeau was a stereotypically dark, handsome Frenchman. He was known particularly for his charm toward women. This was particularly important in the Paris media company where Philippe worked as a manager, because the majority of employees were women.
Philippe had noticed that many of these women took pride in dressing fashionably. He would therefore compliment them frequently on their appearance—for example, “Marie, that is such a chic outfit! You look beautiful today.” This kind of comment almost always gained him a smile, a blush, a thank you, and more importantly, he felt, increased cooperation from the woman he had complimented.
Philippe’s company was taken over by a major international conglomerate based in the United States, and to his delight Philippe was transferred for a two-year assignment in the company headquarters in New Jersey. He was given a briefing on the United States and its different norms and was advised, for example, that touching other people, particularly those of the opposite sex, was much less acceptable there than in France. He therefore resolved to be careful about his habits of taking his
female colleagues’ hands in his, kissing them on the cheek, and the like.
In New Jersey, his new secretary, Anita Courtenay, was highly effective as well as strikingly beautiful. Like many of Philippe’s French colleagues, she dressed extremely well. Philippe was careful to keep his physical distance from Anita as he had been taught, but he felt that her obvious glamour provided an opportunity to build a good working relationship. So in his customary French manner he would greet her every morning with a fresh compliment on her appearance. Her initial reaction was surprise. Then she would thank him politely and change the subject. But after a week or so she began to respond by frowning and pursing her lips. Philippe was puzzled. She really was an outstanding secretary as well as a beautiful woman. Did she think his compliments were insincere? And was it his imagination, or was she wearing outfits that were less chic with each passing day? Was she also using less makeup?
One morning he arrived at his office to find Anita seated at her desk, apparently wearing no makeup and with an outfit that was neat and tasteful but far from glamorous. Even in this modest attire, Anita looked fresh and lovely, and Philippe said so: “Anita, once more you are looking wonderful. My heart is beating faster, and I know that I will work better today because of it.”
She looked at him with astonishment, then stood up. “Mr. LeBeau,” she said levelly, “please stop making comments on my personal appearance. I am not here as a decoration, I am here as an employee. I take pride in what I do, but all you can talk about is the way I look. Can you imagine how that makes me feel? I have tried to discourage you, but you won’t take a hint. And if you have any ideas about getting involved with me, you can forget them—I’m not interested. So from now on, can you please treat me with a bit more respect and professionalism?”
In this case, Philippe has developed a repertoire of skilled behavior that worked well in one cultural situation but, even when modified, broke down in another. His performance is based on a particular “French” view of the world, on ways of expressing himself probably developed from childhood, on sheer habit, and on having had the habit consistently rewarded. It will be hard for Philippe to erase the habits that don’t work in his new environment and to replace them with new, more appropriate
forms of social performance. First he will need to gain a better understanding of the norms of male-female interaction in his new culture (knowledge). Then he will have to pay more attention to the behavioral cues provided by Anita and the other women with whom he interacts (mindfulness). Last he will need to develop, experiment with, and refine new ways of behaving toward women.
The development of this new behavior involves developing a set of general skills. The general skills that research has shown are related to appropriate behavior in cross-cultural interactions are as follows:10
• relational skills
• tolerance for uncertainty
• perceptual acuity
The specific behavioral skills that are required to operate across cultures span the gamut of interactions and interpersonal relationships in organizations.
Skilled Performance To understand the skills aspect of cultural intelligence, think of yourself as a performer. The notion of skilled performance has been applied to many different areas of human endeavor. Diana Krall singing a jazz standard or Novak Djokovic hitting a perfect tennis serve epitomize the smooth and apparently effortless production of behaviors that exercise near-perfect control over parts of the physical world. These virtuoso performers have enormous physical and mental talent in their chosen fields, yet each has also spent many years of hard work perfecting her or his art. Djokovic’s performance is built on numerous skills, such as manual dexterity and distance estimation, and Krall’s on other skills, such as the ability to hear different musical tones and mastery of voice control. The performance of effective cross-cultural behavior is built on general skills, such as those indicated above, and sometimes on skills specific to particular cultural situations.
A key skill element in cultural intelligence is adaptability. Each situation will be unique and will involve interaction with unique people. As skilled social performers, we have to be able instantaneously to adapt
our general approach and specific interactions to the particular characteristics of the situation and to the expectations of the other people involved. Effective cross-cultural behavior is not composed of fixed routines but of flexible abilities that can—with the guidance of mindfulness—be modified to meet new or changing conditions. Within every culture people vary in the extent to which they conform to underlying cultural norms. The culturally intelligent person’s social performance draws on a repertoire of potential behaviors. By mindfully monitoring the environment, he or she is able to select, employ, and modify appropriate routines from this wide resource.
Summary This chapter describes how our cultural programming affects our behavior and our interactions with others who are culturally different. Much of the time we base our actions on cultural cruise control, in which our mental programming directs our behavior without much conscious thought and allows us to continue to do things without actively thinking about them. However, in cross-cultural interactions this mindless behavior can cause problems. Through selective perception, stereotypic expectations, and inaccurate attributions, we may misjudge the behavior of others who are culturally different. To counteract the tendency to function on cultural cruise control, this book advocates practicing mindfulness, an active awareness that links knowledge about culture to appropriate behavior in cross-cultural situations. The culturally intelligent person also needs to increase his or her repertoire of skilled behaviors, particularly social behaviors, and to be able to deploy these appropriately in different cultural settings. The elements of knowledge, mindfulness, and skills enable the practice of cultural intelligence in skilled performance that is adapted to the particular cultural settings the individual faces.